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Scientific name: Cardinalis cardinalis
Common name: 
Northern Cardinal

(Information in this Species Page was compiled by Tim Burg in Spring, 2001 and Mindy Beale in Spring 2004 for Biology 220W at Penn State New Kensington)

Male cardinalThe northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is one of the most recognized birds of North America. The bright red body feathers and distinctive black mask of the male and the more subdued but equally elegant olive brown and red-tinted females stand out clearly in their wide range of preferred habitats. They are very abundant in the edges of woods and thickets, in open fields, in suburban yards and gardens, and in a wide variety of urban green spaces.

Adult northern cardinals of both sexes are between 7 and 9 inches long and weigh between 1.4 and 1.8 ounces. Both sexes have distinctive, feathered head crests, and stout, orange-red beaks. Immature cardinals have the olive, “female” plumage. Males will develop their bright-red colorations by their first fall or winter. Immature cardinals are also easily recognized by their black beaks.

The northern cardinal is found throughout the eastern United States and on south into Mexico and Central America. Historically, cardinals were most numerous in the southern portions of their geographic range, but they have been steadily increasing in numbers in the north and are even expanding their distribution northward into northern New England and southern Canada. The western boundary of their range is roughly along a line from the Dakotas to western Texas although there are cardinal populations in New Mexico, southern Arizona, and California. The expanding distribution of the northern cardinal has been described by some as another ecological consequence of global warming. Some researchers, though, feel that the increasing popular habit of providing birds with seed in feeders may have allowed this species to survive and thrive in regions previously too marginal or harsh for their existence. Further, the ongoing fragmentation of natural forest habitats by human activity and the proliferation of suburban shrub and conifer plantings have created increasingly abundant “edge” ecosystems which are greatly favored by this species. 

The northern cardinal eats a wide variety of seeds (including those from pine trees, smartweed, bindweed, foxtail, dock, thistle, chickweed, button weed, sorrel, and a great variety of grasses), fruits (including grapes, dogwood fruit, blackberries, cherries, and raspberries), and even the buds of some trees (including elm and chokecherry). They also eat insects and, in fact, rely almost exclusively on insects as food for their rapidly growing young. Cardinals are also very common visitors to backyard bird feeders and avidly consume large quantities of sunflower seeds. The northern cardinal is not migratory and will remain even in the most northern parts of its geographic range throughout the winter especially if it is sustained by human-maintained birdfeeders.

Mating and Reproduction
By early spring, male cardinals have aggressively claimed their territories and will court and mate with a chosen female. Cardinals are predominately monogamous and will mate for life. The females build the shallow-cupped nest with some assistance from the male. Small twigs, strips of bark, grasses, and leaves gathered by both the male and female are woven together by the female and then lined with soft grasses and animal hair. Nest building takes between 3 and 9 days to complete. Prime nesting sites are dense bushes and shrubs.

The female lays between 3 and 4 eggs which she then incubates (with only occasional help from the male) for 12 to 13 days. The hatchlings are blind and featherless and must continue to be carefully incubated, also predominately by the female, for many more days. After the eggs hatch, the male enters into a period of manic food gathering and feeding. The nestlings initially must be fed 3 or 4 time each hour! This rate increases after the third day to up to 8 times per hour. As mentioned previously, most of the foods gathered for the nestlings are insects. By the fifth day the nestlings are large enough to swallow and digest larger food (like grubs etc) and so feeding frequencies (but not quantity!) can be reduced to 3 or 4 times per hour. The feeding behaviors displayed by the parents are so intense that cardinals have frequently been observed compulsively feeding other bird’s nestlings and even other willing species (including goldfish!).

After 8 days, the young cardinals are nearly the size of the adults. By day 10, they typically make their first flights. A few days after the nestlings fledge the female leaves the family group and the male takes over the feeding and nurturing of the young. This nurturing includes teaching the young the great variety of songs and dialects typified by this species. The parental female probably goes off to recover from the birth and brooding process and to recover her strength and weight for the next reproductive event or for the stresses of the coming winter. Typically, cardinals have two broods in a season: one in the early spring (March or April) and a second in the summer (June or July).

Life Span and Predation
Northern cardinals are preyed upon by owls, small hawks, and house cats. Their nests may be raided by chipmunks, blue jays, crows, and a variety of snakes. Also, cowbirds are common nest parasites, and northern cardinals compete with catbirds and mockingbirds for nesting sites.

On average, northern cardinals live for 3 years in the wild although several individuals have had life spans of 13 to 15 years. The longevity record for a captive northern cardinal is 28 ½ years!

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